It’s time to get pretentious.
Since CDs arrived and started to threaten the very existence of vinyl records, the anoraks of the hifi world started their assault on the new digital formats, branding them poor quality and a travesty to music. Of course, we now know that CDs did rather well, up to a point. That point was the real digital music revolution, which owed its popularity in many ways to the CD, as it became so easy to ‘rip’ the content of a CD to a generic format like MP3, or Microsoft’s WMA format that was their preferred method for Windows and their Media Player software.
Today’s Digital Formats
Today, a couple of decades later, there’s lots of companies in on the act. Plenty of devices will still play MP3s quite happily, but when was the last time you saw someone on a bus or the subway with a portable CD player? Those devices are long gone, with the exception of the kids trying to look cool with their retro tech. There’s also the other side of the fence, where companies like Apple have adopted lesser known formats, in this case AAC, which while not technically their own, don’t commonly play on devices other than their own (namely the iPod, iPad and iPhone, along with on computers with iTunes installed).
Why Do People Choose A Lower Quality Recording?
So, with the brief history lesson out of the way, if the nerds of the past are correct about vinyl being best, why exactly do the masses store their music digitally?
The answer is in the way we like to live our lives in the modern world – convenience.
Vinyl records are incredibly delicate things by the standards of a CD and certainly a digital format like an MP3 file. They scratched easily, you had to count your way across the rings to ‘fast forward’ to another song, and they actually took up a lot of space. People used to carry around substantial boxes of records, and if yu saw a DJ heading into a nightclub, they’d often be lugging two or three of these heavy and bulky carriers around, and have a lot less music at their disposal too than today’s masters of the wheels of steel.
Nothing Extra To Carry
Our phones often carry far more music than those DJs ever could, and they were the experts of the time when it came to keeping a crowd moving. Go to a nightclub today, and virtually everyone in attendance will likely have a device full of music in their pocket, or even one that’s hooked up to a streaming service like Spotify, Amazon Prime Music or any other service of their choosing. That doesn’t change the fact that they’re there to listen to the DJ’s choices though, and that’s a small hint as to why vinyl itself has never died.
Vinyl Vs CD Vs Digital
The devotees of the church of vinyl are never going to admit that a CD or MP3 is ever going to sound good enough. Some of the lossless or near-lossless formats can get very close, but they’re correct, and MP3 file or CD album simply cannot replicate the accuracy to the true recording that a humble vinyl record is able to. The reason for that is in the fundamental technology. A record is analogue, whereas digital music is exactly that, digital. Without getting too technical, digital means that a recording in its most basic sense is binary, that is there is a limit to how specific any given piece of information in a digital recording can be. Analogue on the other hand is only limited to the vinyl printing press in how accurate it is, so in theory it can be exact, and certainly far more accurate than any digital format (even so called lossless).
How Lower Quality Got Better
To make it a little more complex, some digital files in themselves can be more accurate than others, and that’s down to something called bit-rate, and that’s to do with how much information is stored per unit of time. For example in the early days of MP3 popularity exploding, many people were happy with a 128kbps bit-rate, which means that for each second of music, the file would contain 128,000 bits of data, a bit is a single ‘unit’ stored on a disk. That would roughly equate to three to four megabytes per music track, depending on the length of the song – the longer the track, the greater the file size.
A lot of the reason for the acceptance of a 128kbps bit rate was that computer hard drives were still the common method of storage – CD writers were around but the discs themselves still relatively expensive (by today’s standards), USB drives were still uncommon and the hard disks themselves were commonly only one or two gigabytes, so a couple of hundred MP3 tracks would put a serious dent in that quota.
Shortly after that, hard drives started to grow in size quickly, meaning that people started to jump up to 192kbps bitrates, often without realizing. Putting the rights and wrongs (mainly wrongs) of filesharing aside, software like Napster became very popular very quickly, allowing people to freely share these files, so many people never actually encoded (converted their CDs to MP3 format) at all, instead just downloading someone else’s copy. Of course, it was only a matter of time before those services came under the legal spotlight and closed down due to piracy concerns, but the point here is suddenly the audio quality had jumped by 50%. That was a noticeable improvement for the vast majority of people, and had reached a point that many would be happy with, and couldn’t notice a difference between MP3, CD and vinyl (to name a few).
Convenience Won The War
So, that’s most people, and therein lies the reason why most have abandoned vinyl records in favor of digital formats. They’re more than happy to take a marginal hit on quality to get the convenience of carrying thousands of tracks everywhere they go on the phone in their pocket. They can subscribe to unlimited streaming of millions of songs from online services, and they don’t need to use up tons of space to store the physical CDs and vinyl as they or their parents used to do.
All of that said, as you’re on our site, the chances are you’re not one of the masses, but someone who wants that quality of audio. For that, we salute you. Why not take a look at the top ten turntables on our homepage, and bask in the geeky glory we secretly love, knowing we get that little bit more out of listing to our slightly crackly, but deep and rich non-digital version?